English Proficiency Tests Comparison


Standardized language proficiency tests are widely used all over the world to evaluate students’ skills in various languages. Because of the vast number of English language learners, there is a significant variety of English language proficiency tests. When used in the ESL context, these tests can help to assign students into ability-based groups, assess their progress, and plan the course in a way that would help to achieve the best outcomes.

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The latter application is particularly prominent in high school contexts where ESL students are required to prove their English skills in order to enroll in college. The present paper will focus on three widely used standardized English proficiency tests: International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and the Pearson Test of English Academic.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

TOEFL is a popular standardized test that measures a student’s proficiency in English, focusing in particular on academic English rather than on casual language use. The test has several modifications, including Internet-based, paper-based, and junior assessments. The Internet-based TOEFL is the most common form of examination, but in some contexts, paper-based tests are still in use. These two forms of testing differ in terms of length and grading.

The iBT takes approximately four hours to complete and has a maximum score of 120, whereas the PBT takes only up to 2.5 hours and is graded from 310 to 677 points. The structure is also slightly different since the PBT does not include a speaking component. Instead, the PBT features a section on structure and written expression in addition to listening, reading, and writing parts. In the iBT, this section has been replaced by speaking tasks.

Most of the questions in TOEFL are multiple-choice questions, except for the writing part, where students answer one essay questions. The content of the questions is different based on the respective part of the test. In the reading section, students usually find a medium-sized passage on a specific academic topic, such as history, art, or natural sciences. The text is followed by questions directly related to the reading.

For example, in the sample test provided by Educational Testing Service (ETS, 2015), the text on meteorite impact and dinosaur extinction is followed by questions such as “According to paragraph 3, how did scientists determine that a large meteorite had impacted Earth?” and “Paragraph 6 supports which of the following statements about the factors that are essential for the survival of a species?” (p. 3, 5). There are also some questions assessing reading comprehension that ask students to explain the meaning of certain words: “The word “excavating” on line 25 is closest in meaning to…” and “The word “consumed” on line 32 is closest in meaning to…” (ETS, 2015, p. 4). Each question is followed by four answer choices, and the student is required to select only one answer.

Similarly, the listening section presents students with the core material, which is usually a dialogue between two people on a specific subject. Then, students receive multiple-choice questions based on the dialogue. In the sample test, the dialogue takes place between a male coach and a female student, and some example questions are “What are the speakers mainly discussing?” and “Who is buying new jackets for the team?” (ETS, 2015, p. 12). The second part of the listening section features an excerpt from a lecture, and the questions are also based on its content.

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The speaking section in the iBT requires students to talk on various subjects. Questions 1 and 2 in this section focus on casual topics, such as a memorable pleasant experience in school (ETS, 2015). Then, tasks 3 and 4 present students with a short text and ask them to respond to a question about the text. For example, the sample paper includes a passage from a psychology textbook and requires students to “explain flow and how the example used by the professor illustrates the concept” (ETS, 2015, p. 20).

In the PBT, the speaking section is replaced with a test on structure and written expression, which consists of 40 multiple-choice questions. In the first 15 questions, students are required to complete a sentence using the correct word, and in the other 25 questions, they need to identify a faulty part of a sentence. Finally, the writing section has 2 parts to it: summarizing a reading passage and answering an essay question. In the sample test, students are given a statement and required to explain why they agree or disagree with it.

The procedures of administering TOEFL are similar regardless of the form. Firstly, students need to be provided with the required materials, including a computer with an Internet connection or a paper test, paper and pens for notes, and separate desks. The listening part of the test requires a playback device, such as a computer with speakers, and the speaking part must be carried out individually in a separate classroom and recorded appropriately.

There is also an obligatory 10-minute break after the first two sections of the test when students take the iBT. For ELL students taking the test, it is necessary to explain each task clearly, including the time limit that they can spend on each task. The teachers’ role depends on whether or not the test is conducted by external examinators. If so, teachers usually support their actions by providing oversight, ensuring that each student has the necessary resources, or measuring the time spent on each task. If not, then teachers are required to explain tasks, play audio materials, and record speaking assessments alongside these activities.

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

The IELTS test is also widely used all over the globe, and it is particularly popular among educational institutions in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. The structure of the test is similar to the Internet-based TOEFL and includes sections on listening, reading, writing, and speaking. However, the IELTS test is generally shorter than the TOEFL and is estimated to take about 2 hours and 45 minutes. The questions are also unlike those included in the TOEFL, as the test focuses more on casual English than on academic English.

The listening section contains 4 tasks, each consisting of an audio excerpt and 10 questions. Questions mostly include multiple-choice statements, such as “One of the two main goals of the aquarium is to encourage people to…” and “Most of the animals at Moray Bay Aquarium come from…” (Magoosh, n.d., p. 9). Some questions also require students to fill in gaps in statements from the audio conversation.

The reading section of the IELTS test is very similar to that of the TOEFL because it also contains passages on academic subjects. However, in addition to multiple-choice questions, students may also be required to match statements to parts of the texts containing the said information or mark true and false statements based on the given information (Magoosh, n.d.). Multiple-choice questions are given in the form of statements, such as “According to the single feature model, some will prefer to buy plastic plates instead of fine dishware because…” (Magoosh, n.d., p. 29).

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The writing section contains two tasks, the first one requiring at least 150 words and the second needing 250 words or more, so students need to set aside time for counting words. Writing task 1 usually asks students to summarize information from a visual item, such as a chart or a graph, whereas task 2 is a typical essay question. In the sample paper, task 1 involves summarizing a projected annual attendance graph, and task 2 asks students to describe advantages and disadvantages of using tablets and laptops in schools instead of books (Magoosh, n.d.). The writing section should be completed in 1 hour, with 20 and 40 minutes devoted to tasks 1 and 2, respectively.

Lastly, the speaking test takes between 11 and 14 minutes and is completed individually by each student with a qualified examinator. There are three parts to this section: introduction and interview, individual long turn, and a two-way discussion. In the first part, the student identifies themselves and answers some basic questions about their hobbies, work, family, and related fields. In the second part, the student is given a topic with some bullet points and questions and has to prepare a short speech in one minute (Magoosh, n.d.). In the sample paper, the task is to describe a valuable lesson learned from a teacher (Magoosh, n.d.). Then, the two-way discussion begins, which includes the examiner’s questions in relation to the speech and students’ answers.

The procedures for IELTS testing are similar to those required for the TOEFL. For the first three parts of the test, students are placed in one classroom and are either given a paper-based test or a computer with an Internet connection.

Paper and pencils or pens are provided to take notes, but there are no breaks during the test unless the school requires an intermission. For ELL students, all procedures and tasks should be explained clearly, and any questions should be addressed before beginning a new section. For the listening part, separate spaces should be provided where students could have a one-on-one session with the examiner. Since IELTS testing is usually administered by accredited organizations, the teacher’s role in the process is limited to overseeing the students to prevent cheating and ensure that students have all the required materials.

The Pearson Test of English Academic

The PTE Academic is less popular than the other two tests discussed but is nonetheless accepted in many educational institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe. The test focuses on the learners’ knowledge of English spoken in academic settings, which makes it similar to IELTS and TOEFL in terms of focus. It is also of comparable length to the paper-based TOEFL or the IELTS test, ranging from 2.5 hours to 3 hours 11 minutes. The structure of the test, however, is different, primarily because the speaking and writing sections are integrated.

First of all, students complete the speaking and writing part of the test, which includes giving a brief introduction, reading aloud, describing an image, and answering short questions. The final task in this section is writing a short essay, which should be between 200 and 300 words written within 20 minutes. The essay part usually contains either a question or a statement on a general topic. For instance, in the sample paper, students are required to discuss the relationship between education and national prosperity (Pearson Education Ltd, 2011).

The reading section of the exam is similar to both IELTS and TOEFL since it contains reading passages paragraphs followed by various tasks. These tasks include multiple-choice, fill-the-blanks, and ordering questions. For example, the sample paper contains a passage on the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the related question is “According to the text, which of the following statements can be concluded about primary classes in the Turks and Caicos Islands?” (Pearson Education Ltd, 2011). Ordering questions, in turn, require students to put the paragraphs or sentences in the correct sequence.

Finally, the listening section differs from that of IELTS and TOEFL because there are more types of tasks involved. For example, the first task in the listening section requires students to summarize a spoken text, and the fourth question includes highlighting the correct summary (Pearson Education Ltd, 2011). There is also a task that involves writing from dictation, in addition to traditional multiple-choice and fill-the-blanks questions.

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The procedures for administering the PTE Academic test are different because the test can only be completed on a computer (Pearson Education Ltd, 2011). Therefore, teachers need to provide access to a quiet classroom that is fully equipped with computers. For the listening part, students will need audio playback software and individual headsets. Some students might require paper and pens to make notes, and there is an optional break following the reading section. Since the test is fully automated, the teacher’s role in the examination process is mostly limited to oversight and time control. Depending on the proficiency level of ELLs, teachers should take more time before the test to explain the procedures and answer students’ questions to minimize the risk of errors or delays during test completion.

Using IELTS, TOEFL, and PTE Academic to Measure ELLs’ Language Skills

Based on the descriptions above, there are different uses for these three standardized English proficiency tests. PTE Academic would be particularly useful in classroom settings that include low-proficiency English language learners because it focuses more on comprehension and grammar than the other two tests. Thus, PTE Academic could be used to assess the skills of ELLs that first enter the classroom and evaluate their progress as they work on reading, oral, and basic writing skills.

Both IELTS and TOEFL can be considered to be more advanced since they do not include tasks associated with basic English use, such as repeating sentences or summarizing a spoken text. These two tests are also widely used by educational institutions, making them particularly relevant in the high school ESL context. First of all, both tests can be used to assess students’ language ability in order to assign them to proficiency-based groups. By creating ESL classrooms where students have comparable English skills, teachers can ensure that classes will be equally beneficial to all and that students will be less anxious to participate in discussions.

Secondly, results from IELTS and TOEFL can be used to highlight specific gaps in the English skills of ELLs. In both tests, sections on reading, writing, and listening are graded individually before the final grade is given. While students tend to exhibit slightly different levels of English skills in different test components, significantly lower scores in listening or writing might point out specific problems that can be targeted in the ESL classroom. For instance, if a student has a low grade for writing and high grades in other test components, the teacher could consider reviewing grammar and composition. However, if a student exhibits poor performance in speaking or listening, this could indicate that additional oral skills practice is in order.

Lastly, IELTS and TOEFL can also be used to set goals and track students’ progress and achievements throughout the ESL program. This is particularly relevant for high school students who need a certain IELTS or TOEFL score in order to enroll in college. Using a standardized measurement system is useful for evaluating ELLs’ progress with English skills and assessing whether or not they need additional services to get into college. Nevertheless, these tests can also be used for students in middle school to evaluate their success and tailor the program to meet specific goals.


All in all, the three standardized language tests have both similarities and differences that affect how they can be used to measure ELL students’ language skills. IELTS and TOEFL are the most popular English tests, and they are used by many colleges and universities. Hence, these tests would be particularly useful for setting goals and measuring the progress of ELLs in high school settings. The PTE Academic test has a different structure, which makes it more applicable in classrooms with low-proficiency ELLs. All three tests can be used for placement and could benefit ELL teachers b providing an objective framework for language skills assessment.


Educational Testing Service. (2015). TOEFL iBT® test questions. Web.

Magoosh. (n.d.). IELTS practice test. Web.

Pearson Education Ltd. (2011). PTE academic tutorial. Web.

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